Golden tickets, face masks and thermos flasks of coffee proved the essential if unlikely accompaniments to a lockdown-busting opening session at the World Snooker Championship in Sheffield on Friday.
Seldom if ever can a defending world champion, especially one as enduringly popular as Judd Trump, have received such a modest welcome back into the arena in which he realised his lifelong dream in such style 16 months ago.
No brays of approval from fans in provincial football shirts, no frantic thrusts of ‘Where’s The Cueball Going?’ to catch the TV-sweep – not even Mr Where’s-the-Cueball-Going himself John Virgo, packed off to a bunker in London with the rest of the BBC commentary contingent.
So much for the swashbuckling return of Trump; the sparse Crucible crowd was more reminiscent of the sepia-tinted olden days, when only a handful of hardcore somnambulists remained to watch the likes of of Cliff Thorburn and Terry Griffiths duel it out deep into the early hours.
Plenty of empty seats, in addition to those clearly marked as unavailable for occupancy, indicated that Barry Hearn’s brave – some, including Ronnie O’Sullivan, have said foolhardy – vision of providing a pilot for the safe return of crowds for indoor sports events had not been universally taken to heart.
Not that it mattered to those of us who were poised online two weeks ago to to snap up unlikely second-chance tickets, willingly wading through six printed pages of terms and conditions which required us to submit to a series of processes which would regulate pretty much our every move.
Willing ‘lab rats’ all, we duly congregated in the strictly socially-distanced and mandatorily hand-sanitised queue less than half an hour before the start of a session which was destined to prove historic off the table – and almost, in the most unlikely fashion, on it.
Addresses provided and conditions once again acknowledged, we were ushered through a theatre concourse ordinarily thronged with betting stalls and bars, and a veritable cornucopia of former champions stretching back to the era of bright white waistcoats and black ball finals.
On Friday, only the ghosts, in the form of giant-sized cardboard friezes of former champions including a young and spectacularly mullet-haired Stephen Hendry, gazed down from the walls as if to question the extent of our commitment to catching a glimpse of the famous green baize.
If the sense of a unique occasion was palpable, so was the contrary weirdness of so much opposed to the experience of the wearied sporting spectator – the positive encouragement to bring one’s own food and drink into the arena; not having to queue to use the loo.
Once anchored in our own mini social-distance bubbles, we were roused by the ever-gallant pre-event MC Rob Walker to summon some acceptable degree of decibels for the respective arrivals of two former champions in Trump and Stuart Bingham and their two lesser-known opponents.
And yet a heavy silence seemed the order of the day; barely as much as a cautious throat-clearing, let alone an alarming corona-cough, emanated from the half-empty audience rows through the opening session.
In many respects, it represented snooker bliss – the ‘golden ticket’, as Hearn put it, of watching some of the world’s best players while munching a reasonably-priced chocolate bar and not having to fold your legs up to avoid spidering the spine of the fan in front.
For those of us hunkered in the inner sanctum, phones carefully triple-checked and stuffed deep in pockets, Friday morning was about Tom Ford’s astonishing 147 attempt in the opening frame, and Judd’s increasing likelihood of falling victim to the so-called ‘Crucible curse’.
For those few, coveted hours, it was all too easy to forget that the sun was melting the tarmac outside and the coronavirus crisis, the very thing which had afforded us such a sense of an exclusive gathering, was reportedly heading towards a dangerous second phase.
Only when we emerged blinking back into the sunlight did we learn that while Ford had been miscuing that simple 13th black, Boris had been spinning hopes of two more weeks of extended spectator sessions firmly back into baulk.
From tomorrow, the tournament will resume amid the kind of vacuum only those early-hours old boys like Cliff and Terry could possibly appreciate.
Those of us fortunate enough to have been present for an engrossing first morning session will check our temperatures, sanitise our hands and regale our social bubbles with stories of the day Ford set about putting Trump to the sword, but the lurching coronavirus proved the real victor – with plenty of sessions to spare.